Mike Richards, it sounds like anyway, kept his word to the Mad Professor.
Faced with the possibility of his contract being bought out by the Stanley Cup champions, the 29-year-old Richards vowed to Los Angeles Kings GM Dean Lombardi in June that he would be more committed to his workouts this summer to help bring back the Mike Richards of old. He would commit himself to trying to bring back the player whom Lombardi traded for in the summer of 2011, the one who helped transform the Kings from pretenders into winners.
"This summer, I put in the work," Richards told ESPN.com over the phone Monday. "Of course, injuries can happen, but at least going into the season right now, I feel good and I’ve skated a lot more than I have in the past. I feel prepared, and I’m excited for the year."
As Richards pointed out, it's hard to know exactly how that translates to his on-ice performance once the season starts, but he says he feels much better at this point than he did a year ago.
Just in case, Lombardi did drop in on Richards in mid-August in the player’s hometown of Kenora, Ontario. Now, you can look up Kenora on Google Maps, but getting to that northern Ontario town is not exactly a swift trip.
But Lombardi made it indeed.
"He came up to Kenora; he was there for about five hours, I think. It’s not exactly the easiest place to get into," chuckled Richards.
"He flew the night before to Winnipeg, drove up to Kenora, we woke up, worked out, and then he left. It was a pretty quick trip for him."
You can’t blame the Kings GM for wanting to see for himself.
A year ago, Richards wasn't in good enough shape coming into camp, and he was chasing the rest of the season, to the point where he became a fourth-line center late in the season and in the playoffs.
It’s why there was so much angst for Lombardi, who adores Richards, as he knew that this was the final window in the new CBA to buy out a player without it counting against a team’s salary cap.
Richards has six years left on his deal, counting $5.75 million against the cap. No small decision.
"After the season, we sat down, actually had two meetings, lengthy meetings, really just to talk about everything," recalled Richards. "We talked about how I played, what I wanted to do, and what he wanted me to get back to. We laid it all out on the table. Obviously he likes me as a player and wants me to be part of the team, and I want to be there, too. He more or less just told me I had to get back to what I was doing a few years ago when I was having success, rather than the past couple of seasons, especially last year when I didn’t play the way I wanted to other than the ending."
The ending saw Richards play his best hockey of the season as the Kings won another Cup, yet mostly as a fourth-line center. Sure, he still got some power-play time and played in key situations -- so not your average fourth-line center -- but at the end of the day, his stock had fallen.
"Obviously winning cures all, and you’re happy about winning, but I don’t picture myself as a fourth-line player," said Richards.
"I still feel like I can play at a high level and play against the other team’s best players and not be a hazard when you’re on the ice."
The drop to fourth-line center hit home.
"I’m not happy being in that role, even though you’ll do whatever it takes to help the team win," said Richards. "But you feel you can do more to put yourself, prepare yourself, to be in a better situation. It was definitely a learning experience last year, maybe even a little bit of an eye-opener where you might take things for granted, or take having success for granted. We won, which is a good thing, but you feel like you can contribute to the team more and you don’t want to be put in that position again. And to be honest, I deserved to be put in that position last year."
There’s some humility and honesty that comes through here. And no doubt it’s what came across in those meetings with Lombardi before the Kings GM had to decide on the player’s future.
We shared Lombardi’s viewpoint on deciding not to buy out Richards in a June 25 article.
No real surprise that Lombardi would give Richards the benefit of the doubt, although the player was still a bit nervous before those end-of-season meetings.
"My relationship with Dean is pretty good. I know he’s a fan of me as a hockey player and a person," said Richards. "But at the end of the day, he’s got to do what’s best for the team, too. I guess you kind of have doubts. All I wanted is to be part of the Kings; I never looked at it as a bonus in the financial sense of maybe getting bought out and signing somewhere else. I like it in L.A., my family likes it there, my girlfriend comes down to visit once in a while and she likes it there, too. So I really didn’t want to become a free agent and leave. I want to be part of the Kings for a long time. So I was a little nervous from that point; even though I didn’t think Dean would do it, there’s always that chance that it could happen if he thought I couldn’t be the player I was before. If he thought I was on the downward track, maybe he would have done what was best for the team and bought me out. But it’s good to see he has confidence I can be back to being that player. It’s not easy working out every day and pushing towards it, but I’ve done it before and I felt I could do it. I gave him my word I would work towards being the player I was before."
According to Richards, there were indeed changes in his summer workouts.
"I worked out with trainers for the first time in a long time," he said. "I never felt that I needed to be pushed off the ice to work out, but I think it’s good to have somebody there, first to make sure that you’re going every day, and secondly to help me with different things; even just having a guy there to spot you so you can do that extra round, or having a guy there to make sure you’re doing the right technique and you don’t hurt yourself. You can push yourself harder in different areas. It was nice to have someone there that if there’s a day you don’t feel like going, he’s there to push you, so you don’t take the easy way out.
"I think before, not that I didn’t work hard, but I think I just took it for granted, where stuff was going on and you could skip a workout a day or two and not think it would be problem ... and then at the end of the summer, you’re probably not in the best shape you need to be in going into a season."
Did he do enough? How much better is Richards going to be this season? Will we ever see the Mike Richards of old or at something close to it?
Not even Richards can answer those questions yet. His play will do the talking, either way, in the coming months and when training camp opens at the end of the week.
What he does know is that it's been an experience.
"You live and learn," said Richards. "You take things for granted sometimes when you’re having success. Things that were working when you had success suddenly aren’t working anymore when you’re five or six years older, when you have to work a little harder. Definitely a learning curve."